Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Betrayed by Madoff, Yeshiva U. Adds a Lesson

Rob Bennett for The New York Times -Students in the library.

This is a startling case which is rocking many worlds; people have lost entire fortunes, and toltal losses are in the billions.

One institution affected is Yeshiva University: Madoff was on its board, and Yeshiva has lost $110 million.

In Intermediate Accounting I, undergraduates analyzed how he seemingly tap-danced around the Securities and Exchange Commission. In Rabbi Benjamin Blech’s philosophy of Jewish law course, students pondered whether Jewish values had been distorted to reward material success.

And he did tap-dance, successfully, for decades.

“This overrides everything else,” said Rabbi Blech, who has taught at Yeshiva for 42 years. “It is an opportunity to convey to students that ritual alone is not the sole determinant of our Judaism, that it must be combined with humanity, with ethical behavior, with proper values, and most important of all, with regard to our relationship with other human beings.”

Yeshiva is home to a seminary that ordains more modern Orthodox rabbis than any other. The school, which was founded in 1886, models itself on the Hebrew phrase Torah Umadda, which articulates the interweaving of secular and Jewish studies. Students do not have to be Jewish, but undergraduates do have to spend time studying religious texts.

A surprising fact: students at Yeshiva University do not have to be Jewish.

Some on campus said in interviews last week that Mr. Madoff’s arrest showed those values were in need of realignment. Several students said they felt dual, even competing, pressures to achieve material success as well as religious devotion, and worried that some might be prone to follow immoral paths if the rewards were alluring.

Material success is defined as success all too often. Billionaires are lionized.

“There’s no such thing as wanting to be a professor in this community,” said Josh Harrison, 23, a graduate student pursuing Jewish philosophy. “All my friends who are intelligent and interesting and asking questions are pre-med and beginning law school.”He added, “This will force a whole reassessment.”

One can only hope so.

“In elevating to a level of demiworship people with big bucks, we have been destroying the values of our future generation,” he said. “We need a total rethinking of who the heroes are, who the role models are, who we should be honoring.”

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